Ahead by a Hair: Preterm Delivery and Maternal Mercury Intake

By Tibbetts, John | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Ahead by a Hair: Preterm Delivery and Maternal Mercury Intake


Tibbetts, John, Environmental Health Perspectives


Pregnant women often receive confusing information about whether or not they should consume fish and fish oils. Protein and unsaturated fatty acids in fish confer health benefits. Yet numerous studies have suggested that fish consumption is a major source of mercury exposure, and scientists have raised concerns that mercury levels safe for adults could pose a hazard to the developing fetus. Now a new study suggests another possible hazard associated with mercury exposure during pregnancy: preterm delivery [EHP 115:42-47; Xue et al.].

The Pregnancy Outcomes and Community Health study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, is the first large, community-based study to examine the risk of preterm birth in relation to mercury concentrations among women with low to moderate exposure to the contaminant. This study is also the largest in the United States to correlate fish consumption and maternal hair mercury. Hair levels of total mercury reflect a longer window of contaminant exposure (for example, across the first half of pregnancy) than blood levels, which reflect recent exposure.

The researchers examined maternal hair mercury levels during mid-pregnancy (between weeks 15 and 27) in 1,024 women from 52 prenatal clinics in five Michigan communities. This state borders on four of the five Great Lakes, giving the women easy access to sport-caught fish, which can be relatively high in mercury. …

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